Today I met with Ana Karlsdóttir, an assistant professor of Human Geography and Tourism Studies at the University of Iceland. Ana was involved in the creation of Iceland’s Green Map, and was kind enough to meet me the day before she left for a sabbatical in Denmark. She told me about her involvement in creating the green map as well as about tourism in Iceland.
Q: How did you get interested in sustainability and involved in creating a Green Map of Iceland?
A: Ana was hired at an agricultural college 100m outside of Reykjavik to start an Environmental Planning program. She heard about the Green Map System and got to know the people who ran nature.is (a website dedicated to all things sustainable in Iceland and the publisher of the map). In 2001, a group of people from 23 countries held a conference about implementing the Green Map System in their respective cities. As a geographer, she was excited by the potential for this method of mapping to view the urban environment from a different perspective.
Q: What are the potentials for the tourism industry in Iceland?
A: It’s important that people have realistic ideas about tourism. It seem that many of the people involved are sensible about how much Iceland can sustain- allowing tourism to grow but keeping is small enough that it does not overtax the people, resources, or infrastructure. One big issue is extending the season. There are hotels and other resources that are only used 3-4 months of the year and are extremely underutilized the rest of the time. The tourism industry is almost entirely staffed by temporary workers, such as students or immigrant workers (a result of Iceland’s participation in the EU free labor movement).
One potential for all season visitors is the adventure trips- but those are contingent on weather, which is entirely unpredictable. There are also a number of cultural events that bring visitors to Iceland: a renowned art festival that takes place in the spring, and a film festival in the fall.
Q: What is the decision process like in Iceland, in regards to development of tourism?
A: Iceland is a small society and at times quite closed. There tend to be a smaller group of people who play large roles in the decision making. For example the new development of a “Blue Lagoon” called Laugarvatn Fontana, was contested. The culture here is resistant to change and at the same time dynamic. Marketing and tourism has regional offices. The Department of Tourism is now a department under the Department of Industry- it used to be under the Department of Transportation.
Q: (Later that day I was headed to visit the geothermal power plant at Hellsheidi). In terms of Industry, what is the balance between tourism and heavy industry?
A: The ministry of industry is focused on attracting more than just smelting to Iceland. But at the same time, after the collapse, the Export Council began adding regulations that deter foreign companies from investing here. It is important to look at the cost of enabling energy production for heavy industry. Iceland is not providing energy at cost to outside companies. Iceland felt peripheral and wanted to attract outside companies, and many have energy rates locked in for 25 years. If and when energy prices change, they will not be taking on this cost.
Many areas that are extremely beautiful as destinations also have geothermal or hydro potential. There are examples in many other places where locating heavy industry in an area deters tourism- it is a trade off between the two.